The following is an excerpt from David Tucker’s latest book, Revolution and Resistance: Moral Revolution, Military Might, and the End of Empire:
Modern history began when Europeans sailed out into the great world to conquer it. That history has been coming to an end for decades now. We live in its prosperous, violent aftermath. Contemporary history is the story of retreat from empire. What will appear in the future, in a world not dominated by European or Euro-American power, we cannot know. It may be that European ideas—democracy, human rights, self-determination— will continue to dominate, at least in speech if not in deed. But they may not. The decline in Euro-American economic and military power, at least relatively, may create the space for alternative accounts to triumph, allowing the sun to set on spiritual as well as physical empire.
With such thoughts in mind, this book provides an account of the rise and decline of Euro-American Empire. It argues that events from the Spanish conquest of Mexico to the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are of the same cloth, woven from a set of fundamental ideas and circumstances. These ideas and circumstances shaped not only the conquest of Mexico and the fighting in Iraq but also the way the French dealt with tribes in North America in the eighteenth century and the British controlled India until the twentieth. It argues that a predominant kind of contemporary warfare, irregular warfare—insurgency, terrorism, guerrilla warfare—is best under- stood in the context of the rise and decline of Euro-American empire over the last 500 years.
The claim made here is not that all irregular warfare over the past 500 years is part of the drama of European global history. Humans have found clever ways to be brutal to one another throughout their history; irregular warfare is coeval with humanity. The focus of the book is on the irregular warfare that occurred as a result of the expansion of Euro-American power and the resistance of those touched by that power. The final two chapters focus on irregular warfare in the twentieth century. They attempt to place that warfare in its proper historical context, to show its true historical significance.
This short book has a long title. A brief review of its contents may help justify it. The first chapter explains how the Europeans conquered much of the world, the moral revolution that encouraged them to do so, the difficulties they faced, and why they did not conquer all of it. Chapter two explains the revolution in warfare and state power that made the conquest possible and the moral revolution that eventually undermined it. Chapter three asks why it was difficult for indigenous people and states to resist European power and how they eventually learned to do it by exploiting certain Euro-American weaknesses: above all, a weakness created by a second moral revolution that began to take hold in Britain and the United States in the late eighteenth century. Chapter four describes how the Europeans, in particular the French, and the Americans tried to overcome indigenous resistance, especially after World War II. The conclusion offers a brief ac- count of some aspects of the current anti-imperial struggle, based on the connections, described in the preceding chapters, between Euro-American imperialism, modernization, and globalization.
While technology, disease, and commerce all help explain the conquest, attitudes and ideas were important as well. Moral revolutions, in particular, were critical for both beginning and ending Euro-American empire and for making irregular warfare—particularly insurgency—an effective means of resistance. In emphasizing the role of morality, especially the moral differences that developed between Europe and the rest of the world, the argument here contends with those (such as Jared Diamond, Daniel R. Headrick, and Ian Morris) who argue that morality, or more accurately, a certain approach to the world, was not responsible for the European conquest. These authors and others object to a claim of European moral superiority. Moral difference is the point stressed in this account. To ignore this difference is to ignore a fundamental aspect of what created, and then undermined, the Euro-American empires.
As well as morality, the military revolution was decisive in building empire. The transition to gunpowder warfare, in association with economic, political, and social changes, led to the creation of a fiscal-military state.
These developments, supported by the first European moral revolution, al- lowed European states to extract power from their resources more efficiently than other states or societies and ultimately to project that power overseas. This gave the Europeans the means of conquest. But behind all these different aspects of the story of the rise and decline of Euro-American empire lies the distinctive Euro-American freeing of human initiative. This moral revolution drove expansion, the development of technology, the widening reach of commerce, and the changing character of the fiscal-military state. It was a great engine of change; eventually, it even changed itself. This second moral revolution (the humanitarian revolution) altered the possibilities of Euro-American empire.
The term “Euro-American empire” needs explanation, both the adjective and the substantive that constitute it. The adjective “Euro-American” indicates that one of Europe’s former colonies rose to preeminence and over the last years of European dominance was indeed the dominant “European” power. In the twentieth century, the United States assumed the role of economic and political arbiter that Great Britain played in the nineteenth. In what follows, it is sometimes possible to distinguish between European and American approaches to exerting power in the world, just as it is possible to distinguish the approaches of individual European nations. Where possible, I make those distinctions.
As the United States assumed the role of political and economic arbiter, it did so in large part with the purpose of dismantling the European empires. This was a delayed fulfillment of the American Revolution’s anti-imperial intent. Given that the United States did oppose and undermine European empires, why is it appropriate to combine the United States with Europe in the term “Euro-American empire”? The term is used for two reasons. First, “empire” means the effective exercise of power over space through time. The test of effective power is to make things happen in that space and during that time that would not otherwise happen. In this sense, the United States acts as an empire, extending its power beyond its own borders. Second, the term “empire” has come to imply the imposition of the imperialists’ way of life on other people. In this sense the term applies to the United States as well. Americans have frequently believed that they could lead or push the world into becoming something very much like the United States. This was an explicit assumption after World War II. A few decades of experience at the effort tempered expectations and subdued explicit talk of such hopes but did not destroy the belief. The George W. Bush administration, for ex- ample, eventually decided that it had to pay the price and bear the burden of nation building. The purpose was not just to transform the Middle East but to improve the world, to remake it in something like the image of the United States: politically democratic, economically liberal. This transformation would of course benefit the United States, but it would benefit others as well. The altruistic component of American imperialism does not distinguish the United States from European imperialists. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British had altruistic motives, first conversion to Christianity and then, especially for the British, conversion to democracy.
For those still not willing to accept the phrase “American empire,” and for those all too willing to accept it, the argument that follows offers the reminder that neither Europeans nor Americans invented empire. Empire is almost as old as irregular warfare. Those who take up a practice as universal as it is morally questionable may be given some benefit of the doubt. Also, we now have before us aspirants to imperial sway whose brutality and dis- regard for freedom can only improve the regard we have for European and American power.
David Tucker is a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center, Ashland University. He is the author of The End of Intelligence: Espionage and State Power in the Information Age and Illuminating the Dark Arts of War: Terrorism, Sabotage, and Subversion in Homeland Security and the New Conflict. His latest book, Revolution and Resistance: Moral Revolution, Military Might, and the End of Empire, is available now.